Welcome to the Information Age series on Diversity & Inclusion Champions. This week, we speak to Dr Alayna Cole on the portrayal of LGBT characters in video games.
Enthusiasm over the commercial success of videogame sequel Red Dead Redemption 2 – which pulled in over $US700m ($A972m) in its first three days of release late last year – gave way to cultural analysis as fans and critics pored over a dramatic narrative that has already been presented to more than 10 million people.
Concerns about feminism, for example, have spawned conversations about whether a game representing America’s Wild West in 1899 should be historically accurate or opt to portray more progressive gender roles.
And message boards are filling with conversations about the game’s portrayal of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender characters – also unlikely to be very progressive given the game’s time and place.
Such analyses might seem overwrought when applied to video games that have long been regarded as mere entertainment.
However, the sophistication and detail in today’s games has spawned more sophisticated analysis – and Dr Alayna Cole is at the vanguard of the emerging field.
Academic, but not just academic
Historically a creative writer, Cole deepened her engagement with the games-design industry in 2014, when the one-time games journalist and developer was offered a position teaching game design at the University of the Sunshine Coast.
Cole undertook a PhD program in creative writing and focused her analysis on traditional fiction.
Her research revealed that there had been little formal academic exploration of LGBT representation within the video-games industry, and she began writing and publishing academic papers on the intersection between queer representation and games.
“The crossover between queer representation and game design hadn’t been explored as much as I would have thought,” she says.
“Games are still a fairly new medium in terms of how much people are thinking about them and working with them, but they have a massive global influence.”
Global game sales passed $US100 billion ($A139b) for the first time in 2017, with mobile games accounting for $US59.2b ($A82.2b) and console games generating $US8.3b ($A11.5b).
Engagement with video games has become so intense that runaway hit Fortnite was cited in more than 200 divorces in the UK last year.
Australian governments have recently jumped into the fray, with the Victorian government last year funding a South Melbourne co-working space that houses dozens of firms including Crossy Road developer Hipster Whale.
A recent ACS partnership with the Australian Esports League is similarly incubating gaming innovation in a move to tap into the growing Esports market, which was worth $US756m ($A1.05b) in 2017.
Red Dead Redemption 2 passed $US1 billion in sales by the end of 2018 – meaning it single-handedly accounted for more than 10 percent of games sold. The messages that a single game carries can be hugely influential on those in its target market.
It is exactly that level influence, Cole says, that motivated her to expand her analysis of LGBT representation – and led her to begin assembling a database of video-game representations.
“There wasn’t that much in terms of resources that I could use, so I ended up making my own,” she recalls. “And I made that public in case there was anybody else looking for that information – which, it turns out, there was.”
Helping developers think queer
That resource – now available online as Queerly Represent Me – debuted in early 2016 and has grown by leaps and bounds ever since.
It features analyses of more than 1,000 games, written and maintained by a nationwide team of six people that is frequently augmented by other gaming enthusiasts with similar interests.
Casual browsing through the database highlights games such as The Technomancer – which, the site notes, features “romanceable gay characters” – and Cursed Lands, which features bisexual and gay “male romance options”.
The database was only the beginning of an effort that has rapidly expanded into educational consulting, design reviews, help with narrative structures, general work in addressing representation, and other efforts centred around supporting the representation of LGBT characters within videogame narratives.
“If there is a studio or event that wants very specific information about inclusion or representation, we have a lot of people on call that we can talk to,” Cole says.
“Most of the work we are doing is with people who are already very convinced that diversifying and finding things that are inclusive and accessible is a good thing.”
“So, even though we are doing a lot of education work, we’re not going out of our way to convince people to do a certain thing. We are just providing resources and tools for people who are looking for advice about representation, but don’t know where to start.”
Cole is now also Associate Producer at games developer Defiant Development.
Moving to the next stage
Having built up considerable momentum in its first two years, Cole’s group recently took a very big step forward with this year’s listing of Queerly Represent Me as a registered charity.
Her doctorate recently completed, the team is “full steam ahead” on exploring ways that charity status can further increase the group’s profile and engagement with game developers, LGBT organisations, government authorities, and other groups.
“People are more willing to trust an organisation that has been approved for doing the right things in a certain way,” she says, noting the strong response to the group’s participation in the Diversity Lounge at the recent PAX 2018 gaming conference in Melbourne.
“We had a really good time,” Coles says. “A lot of connections were made and I think there will be some really exciting things coming out of that as well.”
Future outcomes for the group might, for example, include clearer diversity policies to guide games development.
“It’s helpful that there are such good policies in place for diversity initiatives,” Cole explains, “but there aren’t necessarily similar policies for games.”
Efforts to date have increased the team’s visibility and engagement by “approaching things in a way that makes this accessible and doesn’t marginalise people,” she says. “That is helping us work out how to educate others into making sure their spaces are inclusive as well.”
Such inclusive spaces represent an important opportunity to offer input into the representation of LGBT characters in video games – which, given their sheer market size, has become as important as their representation in films, music, and other media.
“We are doing a lot of work in ensuring that those media representations that are going out there are positive,” she explains, “and saying something that we want them to say.”